This year, we incorporated community learning into our middle school curriculum as one of the units in our new Flex block for the 8th grade. Flex Block, a feature of the new 7th and 8th grade schedule, allows students to rotate through a series of courses throughout the year, one of which is community learning. Students are grouped by houses for Flex Block and, in turn, all of the 8th graders will take Debate, COPE, Leading and Succeeding, Community Learning, and CPR. These life-skills courses enhance the Middle School curriculum and give students avenues for exploring the talents and interests they will pursue in the succeeding years.
Our essential question for community learning in the middle school is, “How does where I live, affect how I live?” As stated in the course description, we want our students to learn about the needs of a diverse, yet increasingly interconnected and global society as they explore the importance of responsible citizenship. We hope students will gain both a deeper understanding of social responsibility and a concrete idea of how their unique talents can be used to serve their communities in real-world situations.
At a student presentation to Randolph’s Board of Trustees in January 2014, 8th grader Maeve Tomalty shared the following reflections on taking the Community Learning Flex Block this year. It is always interesting to see how curricular design intersects with student experience and perception. Maeve touches upon several points, one of which is the difference between awareness and action:
“Many people would say, ‘The program brings awareness of issues like poverty to students, making students want to do something.’ But, just because people are aware of something, does that really mean that they’re going to want to help? I’m aware of many things that I might not be eager to help with. For example, the garbage had to go out last night. Was I aware of this? Yes. Did I want to go out into the cold and put the smelly garbage bag into the even smellier big green container? No. What Community Learning does is turn that bag into a really interesting problem that will affect you if something isn’t done about it. And I’m talking on a larger, more emotional scale than the garbage going out. Those people who are going through hard times are people, too, and that’s what really affects me personally, and makes me want to help. Community Learning brings awareness to ways of helping in the community, but it also creates people who care.
“Visits to places like Manna House and Habitat for Humanity provide opportunities for me to become a community-minded person. My experience at Manna House taught me that food is important. Yes, I knew it was important before the visit, but now I see food as not just food, but I see lost life, regained life, and life that could go either way. Manna House taught me to be familiar with food in that way while I was putting cans in crates, and lending a helping hand. Habitat for Humanity taught me that no matter your money situation, you’re still a person, who can smile, laugh, and make another person do the same.”
Maeve's observation that a life could go either way might lead to an inquiry into what factors could influence that. The aim of community learning evolves by division. In the lower school, effort is directed towards exploration of what makes up a community. In the middle school the emphasis is on exposure. Upper school students are ready to explore these issues in greater depth.
Mason West, who directs the program, makes the point that that, “A powerful element of community learning is the student's realization that what is learned in the classroom can be applied to the issues they see in the wider community. They not only gain awareness through their experiences. They use what is gained in language arts to express what they feel. They use what is learned in math to quantify what they see. They are able to use the tools of causal analysis gleaned from social studies to determine what factors led to the problems before them. Community learning is not a separate venture at Randolph. It is an extension of what is acquired in the classroom."
I’m excited about our continued work to develop Community Learning at Randolph. Our students have come to better understand the basic needs of a healthy, sustainable community, which each of us is responsible for maintaining. Hopefully the knowledge they gain through these experiences will give students the impetus to get involved more fully in their community and begin volunteering as young adults in their upper school years.